One of my best friends in the world doesn’t care one lick about sports. She wasn’t raised to like sports, and therefore she knows nothing about them. Her lack of knowledge veers toward the comical. She thought playing fantasy football meant rolling dice and occasionally yelling, “I scored a touchdown!” She couldn’t pick LeBron James out of a lineup. When I take her to baseball games with me, she always brings a book. Sports have no place in her life whatsoever.
Even though I spend far more of my waking hours thinking about sports than is healthy, I don’t find this difficult to comprehend. First off: Sports are not invaluable to our lives and, all told, are a waste of time. (A glorious waste of time, my favorite way to waste time on earth, but a waste of time regardless; to borrow the phrase, nobody on their deathbed wishes they had stayed up to watch that Idaho-Washington State game.) I sometimes wonder if you surgically removed sports-related thoughts from my brain, I’d used the newly available brain space to invent cold fusion, or cure cancer.
But the main reason this makes sense is that I absolutely understand not knowing anything about something I don’t care about because there are literally millions of things on earth like that. There are volumes upon volumes of facts to learn about handbags, or reality television, or woodworking, or the British royal family, but I’ll never learn any of them because I don’t care about any of those things. That’s how my friend is about sports. She doesn’t know anything because she doesn’t care. I get it.
Except … I don’t have to pay to keep the British royal family or woodworking alive.
By now, I hope you’ve read Patrick Hruby’s terrific piece on this site about corporate welfare in sports. It’s a riveting, thoroughly depressing piece of journalism, nailing down just how much the true “takers” in our economy are those we’re cheering for every day. He got to a lot of things in that piece, but one thing he wasn’t able to – one thing he alerted me to, thinking I might write about it, albeit not nearly as well as him – was the ridiculousness of cable bundling fees.
You, me and just about everyone who works for and reads this website enjoys sports. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. So therefore, we take ESPN and NFL Network and MLB Network and the Fox Sports channels for granted. We couldn’t live without those stations. In many ways, they’re the only reasons we subscribe. The cable companies – and, more to the point, the leagues – know this. And they’re charging everyone for it.
Derek Thompson of The Atlantic wrote a terrific piece last week breaking down just how much of the average cable bill is devoted to sports. Turns out: It’s 15 percent. Now, I personally spend more than that, with my subscriptions to MLB Extra Innings, NBA League Pass and so on, but the average person with basic cable is paying 15 percent of their bill for sports channels.
That might not seem like a lot to you. But boy, is it. Every month, the average cable consumer is paying roughly $5 a month for ESPN and other ESPN channels. That is five bucks, out of the pocket of every single cable subscriber, going straight to Bristol.
That’s not every sports fan: That’s every cable subscriber. In other words: My friend, who couldn’t pick Kobe Bryant out of a lineup, who doesn’t even know where ESPN is on her cable dial, gives $60 a year to ESPN. She never watches it. She never even thinks about it. But she pays $60 a year to them, regardless.
It’s not just ESPN, though they’re the biggest offender. This chart’s a few years old, so the numbers are too low, but an immediate look shows just how many of the most “expensive” cable channels on your bill are sports-related. The next most expensive channel after sports channels is the Disney Channel, and it costs roughly one-fifth of what ESPN does. You can make a strong argument that cable television is essentially a sports transmission device with a bunch of filler about Ice-T’s wife and “Law & Order” reruns surrounding it.
This, of course, has changed the landscape of sports from every possible angle, from the Dodgers’ spending spree to college bowl games to labor disputes to, of course, college conference realignment. It doesn’t matter how many games you go to, or how much merchandise you buy; that’s in large part ancillary income anymore. What matters, when you really break it down, is that because people like my friend want to have cable TV, and people like me can’t live without sports channels, the entire country is handing ESPN and sports channels money whether they like sports or not. Or whether they even know it. As Thompson put it: “Channels competing over sports rights bid up the price of programming. The bundle pricing model means you have no choice but to pay what amounts to a mandatory sports tax. Media companies' all-or-nothing deal with cable providers means you have no choice but to pay at least $100 per year for sports you don't plan to watch.”
This is why Rutgers is in the Big Ten and why the Dodgers just sold for $2 billion (and why Zack Greinke now pitches for them) and why pretty much everything in sports is happening. Sports are getting rich – and rapidly transforming themselves to become more rich – because of my friend’s unwitting wallet.
The strange thing about this is: Cable bundling is sort of a relic. In recent years, there has been a movement called “cord cutting.” Frustrated by increasing cable bills – you’ve noticed yours going up exponentially every year – and encouraged by the amount of “free” content on the Web, many consumers have decided to go cableless, at least on the television side. If you have a PlayStation 3 or Xbox and reliable wireless, you can stream everything through your television anyway, particularly with Apple TV now allowing you to mirror your computer through your TV screen. If you can watch it on your computer, you can watch it on TV. Now, apps like WatchESPN are attempting to fight this by making you sign into their app through your cable provider, but if you’re a sports fan, you don’t have a problem paying for cable anyway. Everything else you can find almost anywhere, from Hulu to CBS.com and so on. (Seriously, the Wired story explains this really well.) Some cable companies have even responded by trying a low-cost tier that gets rid of sports all together, with limited success so far.
Not that many people are going through all the trouble to do this yet, but as cable fees keep going up, and more workarounds can be found (and we haven’t even gotten into pirated feeds), more people will cut the cord. We live in an information-wants-to-be-free age, and we’re still being held down by these media-company gatekeepers. In the real world it’s 2012; in the cable universe, it might as well be 1988. Eventually, this will have to change. It’s too insane and rigged-against-the-consumer for it not to. The problem, of course, is that, like so many capitalists before them, leagues and teams and sports networks are all assuming that it’ll always be like this, that these revenue will keep growing forever and ever, that this golden goose will always keep laying eggs. There are decades upon decades of Darwinian consumer trends that contradict that. In 30 years, we may have all unplugged our cable bundles and be paying a la carte. This is the nightmare situation, but I’m not the first person to suggest we’re living in a cable sports television bubble. Someday it’ll pop. Then, suddenly, we’ll look and think: Why in the world is Maryland in the Big Ten?
Otherwise, my friend is never going to get her money’s worth unless she starts liking sports. Maybe I’ll try to help and invite her over to watch a game. After all, she’s paying for it.
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Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.